With travelling becoming a luxury of the past due to Covid-19 restrictions, or at least being limited as out-of-city flights can be risk-prone, holidaymakers have fewer options to explore. For Karachiites, even access to the beaches had been restricted recently. Books and movies can be great companions during the lockdown but the wandering soul desires to escape into nature’s solitude every once in a while.
A vast majority of us are still not aware of the places close by that we can visit, along the outskirts of Karachi. The inquisitive traveller’s mind, however, is always seeking to discover new spots and, in these times, safer alternatives.
If you are a birder, like me, you will eagerly await the right season and the right spot for birdwatching to document the species that we are blessed with — both migratory and resident avians. As soon as we birdwatchers get a whiff of their return to the local habitat, we start planning our trips.
Our destination this time was the Kirthar National Park, with a strict itinerary to abide by; and it started early in the morning. Hence we left around 4:30am in order to photograph the park’s species around dawn. Despite the rising temperature, the trip turned out to be quite rewarding.
The Kirthar National Park is one of the largest national parks of Pakistan. Spread across an area of over 3,000 square km, it was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1972 and later gained the status of a national park in 1974, after much deliberation and the untiring efforts of bureaucrat Wahajuddin Ahmed Kirmani. He also established the Wildlife Department in Sindh.
This is also the first Pakistani park that was included in the United Nations’ list of national parks of the world. Moreover, it is the only national park of Sindh and the third-largest in the country after the Central Karakoram and Deosai National parks.
The Kirthar National Park, easily accessible from Karachi, offers the beauty of unspoilt landscapes and a wide diversity of wildlife to observe
A few hours’ drive from Karachi, the Kirthar National Park stretches from the city’s north at Hub Dam, all the way to Ranikot in Jamshoro. It is among the nearest travel destinations that must be explored for the natural wonder that it is, including being a habitat for a wide diversity of wildlife. It comprises an extensive awe-inspiring mountainous terrain, and the park is named after the most well-known mountain.
Kirthar mountain is 160 km from Karachi and is the highest hilltop in this territory. Only a reliable 4x4 vehicle is recommended to reach the top. Having travelled from the base camp of Karchaat to the highest reaches of Kirthar Jabal, you might well be the only human beings around, so make sure that there is ample fuel and food supplies on you.
“The Kirthar National Park is an ultimate destination to get contentment from nature. To me it’s a piece of paradise which offers distinctive landscapes, spectacular mountains and unique wildlife,” says Ahmer Ali Rizvi, an avid wildlife enthusiast who has several wildlife documentaries under his belt. “Being a national park and sanctuary, the Kirthar National Park is comparatively a safer abode for some of the unique species of birds, animals and reptiles. The Sindh Ibex is the greatest attraction that draws me to this territory over and again,” says Rizvi.
It is indeed a site worth visiting after the rains, when the green cover adds to the naturally rich landscape. Among the many wild mammals and birds that can be spotted in these mountain ranges, the much sought-after is the Sindh Ibex, also known as the Sindh Wild Goat. It effortlessly climbs up the narrow mountain valleys. However, it has to come down every now and then to access drinking water and can be observed in groups on the foothills.
One can also see chinkaras, black bucks and urials in these rocky terrains; the latter are wild sheep with sturdy bodies, long legs and large, curled horns. Wild peacocks, jackals, red foxes, as well as white-footed foxes are abundantly found at the ground level, amidst the widely scattered Sapodilla (cheekoo) trees that create umbrella-like formations around nearby farms.
One of the spots at Kirthar is Giri Jabal (approximately 70 km from Karachi), reaching which is quite a challenge and hence a 4x4 vehicle is advisable, not to mention that one must leave before sunrise to reach the spot so as to be able to witness the mesmerising view and the early birds for birdwatching. Also, permission from the Sindh Wildlife Department to have access to this area is a prerequisite, as the place comes under their jurisdiction. Hiring a local guide is recommended.
Capturing wildlife on camera and birdwatching require great concentration, good observation skills and, most importantly, persevering levels of patience, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is rewarding nonetheless. One must ensure that they are properly camouflaged among the flora and wear neutral colours, and make minimal movement. Complete silence should be observed so that the wildlife does not get alarmed easily.
There are a number of nature’s hidden gems for birdwatchers. For instance, the deeply vermiculated Lichtenstein sandgrouse is an elusive bird, which is perfectly camouflaged with the ground, given its earthly plumage. Very few have been fortunate enough to photograph it in Kirthar’s terrain.
Grey francolins, medium-sized birds with fine barring and a euphonious call, are abundantly found in groups in this dry grassland. This vast land is also home to a number of nocturnal species such as hyenas, and you might also spot black-naped hare, belonging to the family of Leporidae, in the fog lights of your car while off-roading at night. Night-camping here will surely give you goosebumps, with the howling of wolves all around you — they are also residents of the park. A few leopard sightings have also been recorded, with the latest one being in 2019.
Committees of griffon and cinereous vultures, once abundantly found in the hills of the park, are somewhat of a rarity now as only a few can be observed flying about. In the past, there has been a high correlation of poultry farms dumping their dead chickens and vultures’ presence in those spots.
Besides being both a natural and national treasure, the park faces various threats pertaining to encroachment and depletion of resources, besides the lack of vegetation and extreme aridity that poses a threat to the resident wildlife. Meanwhile, people who live in its surrounding areas lack basic amenities such as running water, electricity and healthcare, for which they have to travel to urban areas.
The climatic conditions of the area are not too different compared to the rest of the province; however, Kirthar may appear slightly warmer or cooler during summer and winter respectively. Monsoons make the landscape more visually appealing, given the flowers that bloom and the lush green vegetation growth post-rains.
Although the Kirthar National Park has its varying phases with respect to the changing weather, the recommended time to visit is from August to February, so that the extreme climatic conditions can be avoided and the trip can be made the most of.
“Places like these are a perfect spot for meditation and detachment from the concrete jungle we live in,” says Khurram Asim Kalimi, a tech entrepreneur and wildlife photographer who frequents this spot as a weekend getaway.
“We can breathe fresh air with no noise of civilisation and enjoy the wilderness with amazing birds and multiple species of wild goats. We should preserve such places for future generations to come!”
The writer is a communications professional, an artist and a wildlife photographer. She can be reached at email@example.com
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, June 20th, 2021